Life in Lagos, Nigeria: ‘People wake up angry at being alive in a society like this’

John Vidal – The Guardian

Saturday March 5, 2005 – Copyright The Guardian
Lagos poet “AJ” Daga Tola is also a musician and activist who lives in
some of the worst urban conditions on earth. The main road to his eight
foot square shack in Ajegunle slum is ankle-high in litter. The open
drain down his alley overflows with black sewage. Fires smoulder below
the nearby motorway bridge; armies of hawkers sell water on the
permanently jammed expressway; and burned-out lorries and cars are
dumped on either side of the road.
 “Everyone here wakes up in anger,” says the man who has taken the
initial letters of the slum as his first name. “The frustration of
being alive in a society like this is excruciating. People find it very
hard and it is getting worse. Day in, day out, poor people from all
over Africa arrive in this place, still seeing Lagos as the land of
opportunity. They are met at the bus stops by gangs of youths who
demand payments. There is extortion at every point. Only one in 10
people have regular work.”
 Roughly one million people live in Ajegunle – known in Lagos as
“Jungle City” – which is just one of many dozens of chaotic slum areas
across the mega-city that now stretches over roughly 300 square
kilometres with a population density greater than either Mumbai or
Calcutta. Some, like Makoko, are built partly on water with families
eking out a precarious and unhealthy existence in shacks balanced on
stilts. All are dangerous, volatile and unhealthy.
 Out of Ajegunle have come some of Nigeria’s most famous footballers,
such as former international Samson Siasia and hip hop idols such as
Daddy Showkey and Mighty Mouse, but there are few success stories; the
main growth businesses in the ghetto, says AJ, are gangs and
evangelical churches which promise a better life.
 African urbanisation has lead to extraordinary new energy in the arts
and culture, but it comes with an horrific social and environmental
price tag. “The reality is that people must share rooms with 10
others,” says AJ. “They have no rights as tenants. They have no
ventilation, so they get ill. The drains do not work. It is abnormal to
have electricity. They can go days, even weeks without power. Only the
rich have water and if the poor get access to any, they must pay 10
times as much for it. The roofs leak. In the rainy season you cannot
move because of the flooding. Governance has failed us on every level.
The local, the state and the federal governments have all done nothing
for us.”
 At the other end of the Lagos spectrum is the state governor, Dr
Tasiwaju Tinubu. Lagos is no longer the federal cap ital, but it is
still the commercial, cultural and trading centre of West Africa,
providing most of Nigeria’s taxes and revenue. If Lagos were an
economy, it would be larger than 32 other African countries.
 “You can see what is happening … the city is collapsing,” Dr Tinubu
says. “By 2010 we are expected by the UN to be the third largest city
in the world. Our population is already 15 million and could reach 24
million by 2010. Lagos is the fastest growing mega-city in the world –
6% a year.”
 In truth no one really knows Lagos’s population. But local research
suggests 300,000 people a year are flooding in. “People come here to
beg from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo, the Horn of Africa, Cote
d’Ivoire, Chad, Niger … everywhere. Yet we have nowhere to put them,
and we are running to catch up with ourselves. And the more is done to
improve the city, the more they come.”
 Dr Tinubu, a US-trained accountant formerly with Exxon Mobil and
Arthur Anderson, has pledged to fight corruption, improve the water,
clean up the waste and tackle the transport problem. But he is
upsetting powerful vested interests which, he says, have been looting
the city for decades. He now tells only a handful of people where he
intends to spend the night and travels in a convoy of 15 black Mercedes
SUVs, with bodyguards, advisers, armed police and ministers. In the
five years since he was elected, there have been three serious attempts
on his life.
 Lagos, which boasts 60% of Nigeria’s non-oil economy, is being
penalised, he says, because federal government hates the fact he is not
a member of the president’s ruling party. It has, he said, withheld 200
billion naira [£78m] from the city, and is diverting other money away.
 “We provide 65% of all the VAT in Nigeria, yet Lagos gets only 15% of
it. There is only about $3-400m (up to £200m) a year to spend on the
city. That is for 15 million people – about $2 per person per year.
What can I do for this?”
 His budget is dwarfed by other comparable world cities such as Delhi,
(population 13.8 million) which has a budget of $2.6bn; and Jakarta (11
million) which has $1bn. Lagos, says the governor, has been abandoned
by the world community. “We are paying the price of General Abacha and
other corrupt leaders and businessmen. We have to convince people that
Lagos is no longer run by corrupt people.”
 According to the UN Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) about
$107bn of Nigerian money is held in private accounts in Europe and the
US. Nigeria’s foreign debt is $35bn and, says the World Bank, it is now
poorer in terms of income levels than Bangladesh.
 But the west is also responsible, says Dr Tinubu, by insisting its
meagre aid to Nigeria goes through central government. “Where you have
over-centralisation, as here, you have corruption,” he says. He says
the rhetoric from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the Africa Commission, the
World Bank and G8 leaders about helping Africa is in reality not very
helpful. “All the noise from Bush and Blair about democracy and freedom
is not backed by concrete action in developing countries,” he says.
“The World Bank? They offer us 200 buses. We need 4,000.”
 “Lagos is growing at an alarming rate and it deserves a donor
presence,” says William Kingsmill, Britain’s Department for
International Development head in Nigeria. “The international community
needs to get real. Nigeria is getting next to no aid, yet is the
largest country in Africa. Some OECD countries think because it has oil
it is rich. It is desperately poor. But governments are nervous about
working there. Nigeria has a track record of massive corruption. Debt
relief is essential. It has paid its debts twice over and still owes
£35bn. We want to work with state governments like Lagos.”
 The city is on the point of declining even further, says Peter Ojumu,
director of local group Health Matters which works in many deprived
areas. “The dreadful environment is linked directly to escalating
health problems. Malaria, typhoid and TB, as well as sexually
transmitted diseases, are all much more common now. Families must spend
more on health so people are becoming poorer. The communities are worse
off, so desperation and corruption grows.
 “It needs massive investment in the infrastructure but also reform of
the political system. Good people are not coming forward because
politics is only for the rich, and for anyone to be elected needs
people to be bankrolled – which means people have to be paid back and
this leads to corruption. The same kind of people always rule us. They
just change their uniforms.”
 Top priority for many communities is water and sanitation. Only 30% of
the city has access to safe water, says Olumuyiwa Coker, head of the
newly privatised Lagos Water Corporation. “Four years ago [when I took
office] I needed armed guards, too. They attacked me with voodoo and
death threats. There was institutional, high-level corruption.”
 Mr Coker, also a western educated accountant, says he was staggered by
what he found. “More than 80% of the water was being stolen. No one
knows what happened to a $170m World Bank loan to improve the system.
Only 4% of the revenue was being collected.”
 But he was appalled by the International Finance Corporation, the
private lending arm of the World Bank, which urged Lagos to adopt a
privatisation model that had failed around the world and, says Mr
Coker, would have bankrupted the city. “We came up with our model
tailored to our needs.”
 The company is now collecting 30% of its revenues, and is solvent, but
Mr Coker needs up to $2.5bn to get his planned 80-90% water coverage in
the city. It will only come, he says, from a mix of private sector,
state government and the capital market. “But [unlike other water
privatisations] I do not expect the price to rise, I do not expect
redundancies and the rich will pay more than the poor. It is our own
model,” he says.
 For the communities in Lagos, it cannot come too soon. “Being
constantly ignored and rejected is sometimes worse even than poverty
itself,” says Victor Omoshenin, an ActionAid community worker who lives
and works in Ajeromi village slum. The only recognition that his
community have had in the past year was when the authorities came in to
destroy hundreds of shanty houses without notice or compensation. “They
have not got rid of the problem. Most people just became homeless,”
says Mr Omoshenin.
 “A few years ago this community was really dangerous. There was a high
risk of stabbings, teenage pregnancies, fights, Aids. A lot of girls
died from abortions done by the local chemist. But we started an
education programme, set up a community clinic, listened to people and
trained them to help themselves. In a few years it has improved a lot
here. Anything is possible in Lagos.”

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